Saturday, December 9, 2017

When It's Not The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year. 7 Tips For Coping With Holiday Grief

by Monica Bobbitt

Christmas is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year but for many, it is anything but the happiest season of all. For those grieving the loss of a loved one or dealing with difficult life challenges such as divorce or illness, the holidays are not merry and bright.

For all too many, they are bleak, lonely, and sad.

The holidays can be overwhelming and stressful at the best of times, even more so if you're grieving the loss of a loved one (or your marriage or health). The holidays can intensify feelings of loss and loneliness. Family gatherings and holiday celebrations are often painful reminders of all that you have lost.

There is so much pressure to be happy at Christmas. Commercials, music, and movies all push happiness and joy. Stores and restaurants are festively bedazzled with decorations to celebrate the season. Even a simple cup of coffee turns into a reminder that the holidays are near. And everyone everywhere is telling you to be of good cheer. Sometimes it's all so overwhelming; you just want to yell,

"I don't have any freaking cheer left, good or otherwise."

In fact, I actually did mutter those very words to myself the first Christmas after my husband died.

We spent that first Christmas squashed into a 200-year-old rental house. All of our things were in storage, so I bought and borrowed a few ornaments in an attempt to make it seem and feel more festive. Still partially numb with grief, my main priority was making sure my kids had as good of a Christmas as possible, given the circumstances.

I forced myself through the motions of cooking a turkey dinner for the kids, my in-laws, and parents in an antiquated kitchen. It was unseasonably warm, +20 C and raining, hardly festive weather. The rain outside matched the gloom in my heart. I counted each agonizing minute, waiting for the day to be done until finally, it was over. As I lay in bed that night, staring at the uneven boards on the ceiling, I heaved a huge sigh of relief.

I had survived the first Christmas.

We were long settled into our new house by the time the second Christmas rolled around. I was totally unprepared for the tsunami of emotions that washed over me as I unpacked our Christmas decorations and ornaments for the first time since Dan died.

My Christmas spirit still hadn't returned, but I was determined to recapture that cozy feeling I'd always had during the holidays. I threw myself into it with gusto. Too much gusto.

I spent days and days decorating, shopping, and baking. Every time I thought I was finished I would think,

“Maybe, just a little bit more.”

And so I would bake another treat, buy one more round of gifts, string another set of lights.

But of course, a little bit more wasn’t enough. And it never would be. The truth was, no amount of decorations, or gifts, or cookies were ever going to make Christmas feel the same again.

I couldn’t see then that I was over-compensating. I was trying to make up for the previous Christmas, and all that we had lost.  I very much believed that it was up to me to make Christmas perfect for everyone; for my kids, my in-laws, my own parents. I spent so much time worrying about making Christmas wonderful for everyone else, I neglected myself.  I was physically exhausted and emotionally overwrought. Which is how I found myself in my garage one day shortly before Christmas sobbing on my father-in-law’s shoulder, as I had so often done in the months since Dan had died,

“I can’t do this anymore.”

And it was at that moment I realized that I never had to do it in the first place. It was never my job to make Christmas perfect for everyone else. I was not responsible for everyone’s Christmas happiness.

I was only one person, trying to do the best I could. I needed to set priorities and establish boundaries, not just for the holidays.

And so I did.

If you are struggling with grief during the holidays, these seven tips may help you cope a little better:

1. Give yourself permission to feel sadness and happiness.
Happiness and sadness are not mutually exclusive.

It's only natural that you will feel sadness during the holidays. How could you not? A big piece of your heart is missing.

There were so many times that second Christmas that I stifled my tears, I was so worried I would ruin the holiday mood for everyone else. I didn’t want to make anyone else sad. I should never have buried my emotions; I should have allowed myself the time and space to grieve.

But it's also equally okay, it’s more than okay, to allow yourself to be happy at Christmas too. You are allowed to enjoy the holidays. Savour those little moments of joy as they come.

Whenever I passed the Christmas tree, I would stop and inhale the sweet scent of fresh balsam fir. I would close my eyes and stand in stillness, and for that moment, I allowed Christmas joy back into my heart.

2. Set limits.
You are only one person; you can only do so much. You don’t have to do everything you used to do before.

 I no longer bake nearly as much as I used to at Christmas, I have scaled the decorating back by over half, and I shop as much as I can online (malls stress me out at the best of times). All of these things have drastically reduced my stress level.

If you are having family visit at Christmas, delegate (which is something I sometimes struggle to do). Ask other people to help out with meals and holiday preparations.

Last Christmas, my children very willingly pitched in and helped wrap, shop, and cook. Many hands make light work, and for the first time since I’d had children, I was actually able to sit back and really enjoy the holidays.

3. Be true to yourself.
You know what is best for you. Don’t feel obligated to do things in order to please other people or because you are worried about what they might think of you if you don’t do them.

One Christmas, the kids and I loaded up in the car and headed off to the cemetery. We weren’t going because we wanted to.  We were going because my in-laws had gone and I felt we had to go as well. And I was worried they wouldn’t understand if we didn’t go. We arrived at the cemetery and immediately felt overwhelmed by sadness. It brought us no comfort to be there that day. Nor did it make us feel any closer to Dan. And as our youngest daughter pointed out, he was already with us anyway. We haven’t gone on Christmas Day since.

Our grief is as unique as we are, and we all have to grieve (and heal) in our own way.  What is comforting for one may not be comforting for another. And you know what? That’s okay.

4. Say no.
You don’t have to participate in events or attend family gatherings if you are not up to it. If you find it overwhelming, don’t feel obligated to attend (or host). Many find comfort in being surrounded by lots of family; others do not. Sometimes you do feel lonelier in a crowd than you do on your own.

I still sometimes find large family gatherings difficult to manage, especially at the holidays. I am much more acutely aware of my “oneness” when I’m with Dan’s entire extended family. Fortunately, I have learned my limits, and if I think it will be too much for me emotionally, I no longer force myself to attend. It doesn’t mean I don’t love them, it just means it’s too much for me.

5. Take care of you.
You will be no good to anyone if you don’t take care of yourself. You have to make time for you. Try not to overindulge in food and alcohol (a tall order on any holiday). Try to get enough rest, and don’t neglect your physical fitness. Make the time to get outside in the fresh air. It will help you cope with stress and grief better.

6. Start new traditions.
Christmas does not have to look exactly the same as it used to be.  Because Christmas won’t be exactly the same as it once was. New holiday traditions are a positive way to start a new chapter in your life.

Dan loved the new coloured LED lights, I do not. I prefer white lights. So I bought white icicle lights for my new house, and I love them.

We’ve incorporated new traditions in with the old. Every year we add new ornaments to our tree. We still hang our stockings on Christmas Eve, but we don’t hang Dan’s. We still make Moose Milk the same way he loved it though. Why mess with a delicious thing?

7. Treasure the memories.
Memories of past holidays may be painful at first. But they can also be a source of great comfort. Our memories are precious treasures.

After the second Christmas, I realized I needed to change my focus. Instead of focusing on how Christmas would never be the same without Dan, I needed to be grateful for all of the wonderful Christmases we did have. And we had so many. In all of our years of marriage, he never missed one, single Christmas. An almost miraculous accomplishment considering he was in the military.

The kids and I have a treasure trove of wonderful Christmas memories with their Dad. And I will always be so grateful for that.

This coming Christmas will be the fourth one since he died. It hasn't been easy, but I have found joy in Christmas again. And so can you. It may not happen the first Christmas or even the second, but if you are kind to yourself and patient, you and Christmas joy will find each other again. 

And someday you may even once again find yourself humming, 

"It's the most wonderful time of the year."

With much love over the holidays,


Click here to learn What Grieving Friends Wish You Would Say

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  1. I lost my entire family. My only child died in Feb. and my husband is very ill. I lost another child 24 yrs ago. These people should be grateful they still have family left. Mine is gone. Child loss is the worst kind of pain, ever.


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